Every once in a while, both in times of rejoicing and of sorrow, a subtle tide of melancholy washes over me, and I am like a little crab caught in an eddy. I feel the tangibles of life fade slightly, and the veiled things become sharper and clearer. Base questions reach up from beneath the surface of everyday life to grab at me, like monsters under the bed. What is any of this for? Why do we eat and drink and clean and parent and work and make friends? Does it matter?
Like the preacher in Ecclesiastes, in those moments I feel that life is vanity. It is futile. This is not a rational thought so much as a feeling of dread that seeps into the cracks in my heart. Work gets undone. Friendships move on. Pleasure ends with no trace. Love falters.
Do you sometimes feel this futility too? I do not think it breaks through as much when we are living frenetically. I think we slap together very practical walls made of bricks of busyness and possessions and ambition and numbness, and for the most part it keeps out the scary things. We do not want to consider the seeming meaninglessness of life. Part of us fears that this really is the final answer.
Is it real, this futility?
Paul says that the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it and that it has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:20–22). The fall of humanity and the subsequent curse laid on creation ravaged the world. Everything is polluted and torn, from our relationships to our bodies to the natural world. Humans rebel against God, and we see this evil played out in every corner of life. Even mindless things work against us, from earthquakes to tornadoes to viruses to the decay of aging.
In God’s mercy He restrains sin and destruction, and we experience infinitely more beauty and joy than we deserve.
However, we will die. So will everyone we love. So will everything we have done. It will all turn to dust. The futility is real. It is not a made-up boogey monster, and it is not a sign of madness.
It is just not the final word.
Those monsters under the bed and in my heart, their fingers slip past me like vapor. They do not have the grip they think they do. There is something more real.
We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:23 and 8:20c-21a).
The groaning is real. The hope is real too. The groaning can make us press into the hope, long for it, and fight for it.
Our Lord Christ will return and will restore all things to their intended glory. He will wipe away every tear and guide us to springs of living water (Revelation 7:17). The futility, the meaninglessness, and the vanity will be forever erased. It is impossible to imagine, for we only know a broken world. Still, our confidence is in the Almighty God who made heaven and earth, who alone has the wisdom and power and love to make it right again.
When that happens, He will fully be our Shepherd, making us lie down in green pastures, leading us beside still waters, restoring our souls, and leading us in paths of pure righteousness. Our souls will not ache with longing, because they will be full and satisfied.
What do we do in the midst of our groaning now?
Ecclesiastes examines this very question, not with hopelessness but with unyielding realism. It should comfort us that God chose to place in His Scriptures this heartfelt exposure of the desperation of man in a sinful world. He cares for us in our fears and futility.
The preacher, through much examination and bitter reflection, concludes: I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man…Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13; 12:13).
The Reformation Study Bible introduction to Ecclesiastes explains:
“Solomon commands God’s people to enjoy life, despite its futility, harsh realities, and uncertainties, and to work with full vigor. This practical approach to life is neither a version of Greek stoicism nor a product of human effort; it is a gift of God for those who fear Him and keep His commands. Ecclesiastes teaches both the human responsibility to obey God joyfully, and God’s sovereign provision of the ability to obey. The gift of contentment is to be exercised not only in the face of human oppression but under the futility and death that God imposed upon the human race because of sin.”
The gift and responsibility of contentment is possible in this harrowing world only though Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:11–13).
His flesh broken and His blood spilled—these are more real than the shadows of fear and despair. His bloody death, His bodily resurrection, and His ascent into Heaven—they are more real than the howling wind that erodes all life and work. His second coming in glory, though still future, is real enough for our glorification to be considered accomplished.
He will make everything that is sad and hopeless and desolate come untrue.
Questions to consider: “Do you sometimes feel this futility too?” “What do we do in the midst of our groaning now?”